Not long after I became a high-school teacher, I remember, I was scanning the obituaries in the local paper, as one does. I spotted a notice of a car accident in which four teens had died. They hadn’t been students at my school (I was thankful), yet the thought that they could’ve been brought me up short. It also transported me back to my own teens and recalled the deaths and damage — all in car accidents — that several kids I had known had been victim to. I remembered careening much too fast along winding, narrow country roads in a VW Beetle that was older than I was, thrilling at the freedom and feeling of control. I was the least of daredevils, and even I loved that edge of danger. But I didn’t think I was going to die in a car; who does? Cars are dangerous, but they have many useful purposes and are subject to numerous restrictions and regulations to make them safer. They’re not weapons. Guns, on the other hand, are only weapons, made with the sole purpose of causing damage and death.
In America, although we’ve not fought an official war on our soil since 1865, our refusal to control guns has allowed frontlines to be drawn wherever resentments, rage, and contempt fester and seek violent expression. In the last twenty years, we’ve been witness to and complicit in what looks a lot like a war on children and young adults (this is in addition to the war on brown and black people, which I won’t touch on in this essay, except to say that it has gone on much longer and is at least as horrifying). From Columbine to Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook to Parkland, each school-shooting has come to seem like the next still-frame in a grisly montage from the world’s most repetitive horror movie, playing in slow-motion across the screens of our lives. With the additional savagery of suspense: whose children will wake up and find themselves in the scene of the day, the shooting on-location?
Now, nearing the end of the traditional school year in 2019, Parkland’s a year and a half in the rearview, 2018 set the record for the most school shootings in a single year, and the new wrinkle seems to be that the would-be victims in school-shootings have started taking their defense into their own hands, dying in the attempt, and we’re . . . honoring them with medals and parades for their brave sacrifice as if they were fallen soldiers in a declared war. Within a week of each other at the beginning of May, Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell were killed while attempting to tackle shooters, Castillo at a high school in Denver and Howell at UNC-Charlotte. Both young men had expressed wishes to join the military; Howell had taken ROTC courses, although he was not yet on a contract to become an officer. Neither’s actual job was to be a soldier: they were students, first and foremost, as they had every right to be.
Yet this is what it’s come to: we’re posthumously praising teens and young adults for dying in their own self-defense. We’re treating them like soldiers whose assignment was to fight for their right to an education.
What kind of sick place is this?
The politicians who are responsible for refusing to do anything about the availability of guns are beneath contempt. They are, I have to conclude, cynical and pragmatic ideologues who know full well that the veneer-moralities of fake Christianity and fake patriotism that have been the fallback justifications for the oxymoronic dealbreaker-duo of pro-life and pro-gun positions are just an easy cover-story. I can no longer believe that any of the calcifying old pseudo-Puritans with one crabbed and icy hand on the reins of power and one saluting the flag actually believe that they’re legislating morality. So consistent and steadfast have they been in their insistence that guns and the right to own and shoot them are more valuable to the life of the republic than the wellfare of its teenagers, that I have to conclude that what is and has been happening in America’s public spaces is exactly what they wish to happen. If you have the power to stop or at least restrict something terrible, and yet you vehemently and repeatedly refuse to exercise that power, then you must not want to stop or restrict the terrible thing.
Thus, it seems logical to conclude that the members of the U.S. Congress who have refused to restrict gun violence through legislation have done so because they want that violence to continue happening in the way it has been. Nothing else makes sense of their behavior.
Why should America’s young people fear that they will die in school? Why should they be trained to “Run, Hide, Fight,” when they ought to be left free to learn biology and rehearse for the school play? Why do we, the adults, continue to vote for people who will not take any steps to treat children as precious and deserving of the best protection we can give them — the very best protection, of course, being an absence of threat from which to be protected?
Why, historically, have adults been largely amenable to sending the very young into war on their behalf? Is it their physical energy and resiliance, merely? Is it their susceptibility to idealism and hopefulness in the face of dismal circumstances?
The activism of the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School reminds me in spirit of the poems and memoirs and stories written by the generation that fought in and witnessed World War I. The disillusionment with elders and traditional values resonates across the century between the Parkland shooting and the end of the “war to end all wars.” Wilfred Owen, a British soldier who died just before the end of WWI, wrote graphically describing trench warfare and the suffering caused by chlorine gas in “Dulce Et Decorum Est,” concluding the poem with these lines:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
The poem addresses someone back home (“my friend”) who is not a soldier and asserts that if they had seen what war was really like, they wouldn’t mislead young people to believe that “it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” Owen’s poem is a wail of bitterness and hard-earned disdain for the reality of warfare. His “Anthem for Doomed Youth” (read the whole poem here) is no less bitter, but its vision is one of broken resignation, hope lost, as its speaker mourns for “these who die as cattle.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m hopeful that young people — “Millennials” and “Gen Z” — will take on the ills of this country with an enthusiasm their elders seem to have lost. But that doesn’t get us off the hook. The only way to atone for the tremendous harm done and prevent further harm is to grab back the reins from those who’ve given up on making this country safer and kinder. We don’t have to accept the vision of those who would have us believe that savagery is inevitable. It is possible to do better than this. And if we don’t try, our lack of action risks dousing the hope of our youth, like Wilfred Owen’s, in despair.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.